Saturday, September 29, 2007

Oxford American's 9th Annual Music Issue (2007)

A little while ago, I tried to write something about the short stories of Lee Hays, the bass foundation of '50s folk group The Weavers and author of lyrics to songs such as "If I Had a Hammer" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine." That project stalled -- his stories are so simple and good and outside the normal frame of literary reference that I failed to find a language in which to write about them -- but in the meantime I've published an essay about Hays' life, radical politics, strange religion, and brilliant music in Oxford American's annual Southern music issue. My title was "Oh Yes, Oh Yes, My Darling!" but OA changed it -- without asking! -- to "The People's Singer." Oh, well. I strongly recommend going out to a store -- probably a big box bookstore, alas, since OA doesn't have a huge circulation -- and buying the magazine, which comes a CD comprised of songs by the various artists, past and present, whose stories are told therein. Almost always well-told, I think.

A particular highlight in this issue is "Hype Machine," by Bill Wasik. I've known Bill for several years now as my editor at Harper's, but like all the best editors he turns out to have been quietly developing his own voice as a writer, and, of course, it turns out to be so smart and funny and perceptive that I feel bad for having made him wade through my messes over the years. "Hype Machine," ostensibly about a band called The Annuals, is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, My Crowd, an unclassifiable work of narrative nonfiction, gag, hoax, subtle ranting, and cultural criticism.

I've yet to read the rest of the issue; UPS seems to have misplaced my copies.

In the meantime, though, I'm obliged to disclose what appears to be a misunderstanding in my account of Lee Hays. Based on various textual sources, I thought Lee was gay, that his homosexuality, closely guarded in the rural south of his youth, perhaps informed the empathy, hope, and anger so evident in his music, and that it was not controversial to say so. What I thought was the evidence was sufficiently persuasive for Oxford American's fact checkers, too. But -- I've learned I read the record incorrectly. A source close to Lee Hays while he was living (he died in 1981) called as soon as he read the story to tell me that Hays' sexual persuasion, asexual if anything, did not inform his music. This source said that my mischaracterization would have made Lee very unhappy. Doing so certainly wasn't my intention, which is why I've no hesitation in saying: I was wrong. I'm an enormous admirer of Lee's life and work. When OA sent me a list of Southern musicians to consider for the music issue, I proposed instead Lee Hays, whose name meant nothing to them. I want his name to mean a lot, to as many people as possible. That led me to scrutinize the available sources on Lee's life as closely as I could to produce a full portrait of the man. Evidently, I misread some clues.

Of course, my mistake raises all kinds of interesting questions I'm going to think about if I keep writing about musicians' lives. Why did I assume sexual persuasion is relevant to the life of an artist? Can it be irrelevant? How does a biographer determine when it is, when it isn't, and when the evidence is too thin to decide?

That said, this time I got it wrong. I hope the rest of the essay goes some distance to redeem my mistake by inspiring a few readers to go straight to the best source, the wonderful music of Lee Hays. The best record to start with, I think, is The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, a live recording of their 1955 comeback concert after the anti-communist blacklist had nearly destroyed their musical careers.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Alexander Cockburn, The Golden Age Is In Us(1996); George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871)

I fell asleep last night drawn down by Tarik O’Regan’s Voices, recent choral works which were sufficiently startling to delay sleep by an hour, and Alexander Cockburn’s The Golden Age Is In Us, which I’ve no intention of ever completing, or ever fully abandoning. I find Cockburn’s diary -- essays in short form, off-hand analysis, quick attacks, clear-eyed reads -- strangely soothing. The entries cover the late 80s and early 90s. I remember some of it, Nancy’s drug campaign, Arafat on the White House lawn; and have since learned about other events chronicled therein (SDI, Satanic panic), and know almost nothing about tiny liberation movements in Hawai'i, or, for that matter, in the broccoli fields of Watsonville, California. This last is of extra interest due to the gravity of narcissism -- Julie and I recently drove past Watsonville, thus endowing the little town with our vast worldly importance.

Cockburn’s point is that Watsonville is plenty stocked with worldly importance already. Here he’s writing about Frank Bardacke, a long-time radical writer residing there. Bardacke’s been on my mind, though the most I’ve read of him are his letters to Cockburn reproduced in Golden Age. But JoAnn W. tells me she is editing his giant manuscript on the UFW and that Bardacke spent ten years on this, and knows it as well as anyone in the world.

Cockburn is writing about Bardacke at the beginning of that project, I'm guessing, flush with the power of perception, detecting in Watsonville’s dusty streets, steeple-less church, seemingly blank broccoli fields all the forces of political economy, empire building, international commerce, money, sex, death, etc. Bardacke is apparently not interested in some Winesburgian distillation – he works in sweep and scope, inverting the cliché “All politics are local”: the local is the political, at the farthest reaches of the latter word’s definition.

Which brings me to the spark for this entry: One page of Middlemarch, read while brushing my teeth. Rosamond is pressing her father, Mayor Vincy, to allow her to marry Dr. Lydgate. Vincy has turned against his earlier generous spirit. “I hope he knows I shan’t give anything – with this disappointment about Fred, and Parliament going to be dissolved, and machine-breaking everywhere, and an election coming on –” “Dear papa! what can that have to do with my marriage?” “A pretty deal to do with it!”

Indeed. It’s no discovery that Eliot’s “pastoral study” is large in scope, but this first mention of “machine-breaking” -- workers' sabotage -- underlines the novel’s interest in the relationship of economies large and small to the usual stuff of money, sex, death, etc. Eliot no more subsumes the concerns of the former than would her characters in ordinary life. And yet neither does she burden them with explanatory speeches, representative positions, and such. One of the lessons of Middlemarch is that positions -- class, political, medical, even -- are like musical tones, only of significance in their relation to other tones and only stable if a phrase were to repeat itself endlessly.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Universe, Universe, circa 1970s; Hieronymus Bosch, "Garden of Earthly Delights," 1504

Working 24-7 through Labor Day weekend on what I pray-pray-pray will be my last article about fundamentalism ever, I take a break to drift through the internets and am rewarded with this 70s Christian rock album by a band called Universe:

Note the contrast between the musicians: While the one on the left enjoys both a cosmic halo and sartorial splendor, the guy on the right is floating in the void, looking uneasy in a shirt that is only mildly daring in this context. I can find no further information about the band, but my guess is that Cosmic Halo lives in Crestone, Colorado. As for the nervous one, look a little closer, and imagine what might have become of a fellow eager to put his freak in the closet. Trim the hair, pad the jowl, add 30 years. Could it be...

I think it is! Fundamentalist former presidential candidate Gary Bauer.

The cover is even better. It's Christian Druggachusetts!

But best of all, listen to the tunes, and imagine what America would be like today if the Jesus freaky fundamentalists of the '70s had only listened more to these guys instead of Jerry Falwell: